This article was originally published at Christianity Today in July 2001.
Working daily in downtown Seattle, I find myself exposed to harsh language all the time, whether in business meetings or walking through a gang of kids on the sidewalk. Later, as I accelerate through rush-hour traffic, I discover that I can use these words as well, lashing out with blunt verbal instruments in the safety of my enclosed vehicle. What is the cause of my stumbling? Have I seen too many movies? Or was I wrong just to leave the house? It is very difficult to be in the world without being somewhat of the world. That is the daily wrestling match for the Christian. And we all fall short.
But cussing in the movies is a different problem. In part one of this series, professional critics and readers discussed cinematic nudity. Some avoid even being confronted with it. Others turn away. Still others don’t think twice about it. Many struggle somewhere in between. Does bad language in film carry similar cautions and prohibitions?
Critics on Cussing
Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) writes, “To demand from our movies and from our unsaved friends that they not curse is to destroy the Gospel message: We preach that Jesus can transform the soul, but we expect people to reform themselves before they even approach us. We should instead hold ourselves to Paul’s exhortation to ‘let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,’ and by example show that we have no reason to cuss or offend; neither need we engage in hateful denouncements, idle chatter, and backstabbing gossip, which unfortunately have been blights on the church throughout history.”
Rich Kennedy (Lansingh’s colleague at The Film Forum) also sees many Christians walling themselves out of their mission field. “To avoid profanity and vulgarity is to almost universally cut yourself off from the world around you. You give yourself some small respite from what you believe to be dishonoring to God, but you shut yourself off from what your neighbor is trying to say. You demand that your neighbor talk to you only in a way that you deem acceptable and … he may refrain from sharing what is on his mind sometimes because of what he might think will offend you. Just as believers are starting to engage and thrive in the world outside ‘Sunday morning,’ whether in academia or popular culture, evangelicals are trying to craft … a ‘pure’ subculture …expecting outsiders to come to them on their terms. … From an aesthetic point of view, the avoidance of profanity and nudity for their own sakes is to cut yourself off from sources of truth, beauty, profundity, and poignant cries for help. This is just as bad as the embrace of profanity and vulgarity indiscriminately.”
Kennedy finds two examples of profound but profanity-laced art in the works of Richard Pryor. “Pryor’s concert films of the late ’70s and early ’80s are priceless performances of unique insight and truth … breathtaking examples of masterful storytelling. They are redolent of casual profanity and vulgar topics. To edit or censor these films would eviscerate them. They communicated profound truth. … They say much about Pryor himself and his peculiar fragility at the time. The monologues about going to Africa for the first time and of how Jim Brown rescued him from his addictions still bring tears to my eyes upon recall after 20 years, for their poignancy even as they are funny.”
Matthew Prins (The Christian Century) has not found cussing to be a very contagious disease for discerning adults. “I have a bit of a needle phobia. I hate getting blood taken, and I hate shots; if either of these are necessary, I get lightheaded. [If] I see someone taking intravenous drugs on-screen … am I tempted? Do I want to start shooting up cocaine? I have no reason to swear, I don’t foresee ever wanting to swear, and seeing it flickering 20 feet tall isn’t going to change that.” When he considers the example he sets for others, he adds a condition: “If I had a child, I’d have to rethink this all.”
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) feels we should be more concerned about the attitude that drives the language. “Words are simply a shell. They are symbols … tools used to communicate thoughts, ideas, concepts, images. A person can be offensive, hurtful, or profane and never use a ‘dirty’ word. And so-called ‘dirty’ words can be (and often are) delivered so haphazardly or thoughtlessly that they carry little to no message and are therefore innocuous. As a writer, I find that because ‘profanity’ is so inexact a form of communication, it is undesirable if only for the reason that there are better and clearer ways to send the messages I wish to convey. It would be nice if today’s screenwriters would take a similar view.” He finds, usually, that cussing indicates “a lazy, undisciplined or undereducated individual.”
Chattaway Consults Shakespeare, Scripture
Peter T. Chattaway (B.C. Christian News, Books & Culture) can name works, popular, classical, and even Christian, in which the vernacular plays an important part. At the movies, he highlights When Harry Met Sally: “The f-word is used four times, precisely. Twice, it is in the scene where Billy Crystal’s character tells his best friend … that his wife is leaving him; it underscores the blunt emotional pain he’s going through. If that film had been filled with that kind of language, the impact of those scenes would have been heavily, heavily diluted. But it wasn’t.” On the other hand, Chattaway argues, it isn’t hard to find examples of profanity abuse. Actors’ tongues in The Score shoot off more often than the guns of Saving Private Ryan.
If we abandon cuss-peppered works, Chattaway reminds us, we must turn our backs on Shakespeare for all of the “coarse humor that exists in his plays. Much of it goes undetected nowadays, but if people are going to lay down the law with regard to four-letter words (or words that sound like four-letter words), they might want to take a closer look at the Bard and some of his better-known works.” He adds that those who criticize Harry Potter‘s occasional curse should revisit Narnia and Middle Earth. In The Chronicles of Narnia, “The magician in The Magician’s Nephew can’t help referring to the White Witch as a ‘dem fine woman,’ and in the first chapter of The Silver Chair, Jill says ‘Dam’ good of you’ to Eustace. Does spelling it ‘dam’ instead of ‘damn’ make it okay, somehow?”
Then Chattaway goes one step farther. Shall we censor Scripture?
It all depends on your translation, of course. I remember [a professor] leading a course in Philippians, and talking about a vulgar term used by Paul [that] the New International Version had covered up with the word ‘rubbish‘; the King James Version’s ‘dung‘ was a wee bit more accurate, he said. Essentially … Paul was saying his accomplishments as a natural-born Jew and a law-abiding Pharisee weren’t worth s***. Thomas Cahill, in Desire of the Everlasting Hills, translates one of Jesus’ sayings, from Mark 7:18-19, as: ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean,’ since it doesn’t go into his heart but into his bowels and then passes out into the s***hole?’ Cahill says in a footnote that the word aphedron is commonly translated privy or sewer but in actuality it was Macedonian slang that would have sounded barbarous to Greek ears; the NIV, tellingly, omits the word altogether and translates this phrase ‘out of his body.’ Of course, Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, not Greek, so what we have is a translation of what Jesus said. But it’s still there in the Bible.
But wait, there’s more. “In Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph over Shame, New Testament scholar Robert Jewett discusses how Paul’s use of the words we translate as ‘circumcised’ and ‘uncircumcised,’ which come up during the circumcision debates in the early church, parallels our modern use of words like ‘d***head.’ He also mentions ‘the bits in the Bible where people use such words abusively-when Saul calls Jonathan a ‘son of a perverse and rebellious woman‘ (NIV), ‘son of a bitch’ (early Living Bible), ‘fool’ (later Living Bible), and ‘stupid son of a whore’ (NLT), for example.”
So are we to conclude that cursing should go unchecked, if it can be found in such integral works? Chattaway concludes, “We definitely aren’t supposed to emulate that sort of thing, but apparently it’s okay to read, and be aware of, stories in which people do talk like that. As always, people have to set their own limits, and what you cannot do in faith becomes sin for you, as per Romans 14. I think we always have to listen to what people are really saying-the meaning behind the words-rather than to focus on the words themselves and make a big deal of those.”
Other scriptures were mentioned in these critics’ responses regarding what we hear. Rich Kennedy reminds us of Romans 14:4, which cautions us not to judge others for their behavior, and thus, their language. As for watching one’s own mouth, Michael Elliott cites several Scriptures that advise him on the matter: Titus 2:7-8, which addresses how one should speak; Matthew 12:36, where the Lord promises to hold us accountable for our words; and Ephesians 4:29, which again advises us to speak cleanly.
Strong Language from Readers
Again, these questions provoked an e-mail flood. What follows is only a sampling. Some find movie cursing so offensive as to recommend running at the first sign of it. Sean Carlson writes, “What’s sad is the number of Christians that do tolerate the swearing and support Hollywood by going to see their outpouring of trash. What you watch and listen to has an impact on your relationship with God. Where sin is, God cannot be! Unless it is a Christian film or rated G, I do not care to see it.” Beth Nealon has strong reservations about exposure to profanity, but she does distinguish between the act of swearing and the referencing of a cuss word, as evidenced in her own response: “An excess of foul language offends me deeply, especially the use of God’s names, and the F-word. I don’t bristle so much at the use of ‘hell’ or ‘damn,’ although I don’t like my children to hear them used regularly. My main objection to swearing is that it shows a lack of ability of the speaker (i.e., the writer) to express himself with meaningful words … I am simply disgusted at the lack of imagination or intellect revealed.”
Ryan Dobbs calls for caution and discernment rather than total avoidance. “Our minds and consciences can be seared by the oversaturation of inappropriate material that we might consume. If hearing profanity-or seeing nudity, for that matter-causes you to stumble in your walk as a Christian, I believe that it would be time for you to reevaluate what you are allowing yourself to watch and to hear.” Dobbs is also concerned about the message such moviegoing sends to others. “If going to an R-rated movie … causes another person to stumble in their walk with the Lord, or if it damages our awesome duty to be ambassadors for Christ to the lost of the world, then we should make it our priority to distance ourselves from such activities. Our responsibility to Jesus Christ is much more important than our enjoyment of a good movie.” Dobbs cites James 3:9-12 and Colossians 3:17 as helps.
Doug Deweese answers with more tough questions: “When Jesus ate with sinners, did he lay the rules out about what could not go on in his presence? I think not. Do you think the fishermen Jesus hung out with did not have a little salty language? What kind of names did Matthew have to endure? And when Paul got run out on a rail, did they put it nicely? Sometimes we Christians would rather act like Pharisees and separate ourselves from those we think probably aren’t [Christians]. Profanity is a very real part of life. If we truly want to know what’s happening in the world so we can respond appropriately, movies are probably the best places to hear the language of the world because it is fictional and does not have to become a part of us.” He adds, though, “Ratings ought to be more strict …on language.”
Others think it important to pay attention to our culture, and that art will reflect the flaws and the failures of that culture. Andrew Zahn agrees that movies tend to overdo it. “Films for adults, based on the premise of reflecting real people in situations we can relate to, would naturally contain profanity … to maintain the realism. Profanity in films of this type can be overdone (and often is), but this is more a matter of bad taste and unimaginative scriptwriting than morality. In movies, I expect sinners to sin, and I expect pagans to act like pagans.” Jason Cusick agrees: “As in the case of nudity, using questionable content needs to be character-driven. If in a movie I see a total pagan get mad, I expect him to cuss and find him less than believable when he doesn’t. The Bible does say not to let unwholesome words come from your mouth, and that obscenity and coarse joking should not have place with us (Ephesians 4:29, 5:4), but I take non-Christians at face value.” He has a further challenge for believers: “I think one main issue for us is choosing our battles with regard to engaging the culture. If we major in censoring people for cussing, we will never hear what they are thinking or feeling, because we will refuse to listen to the language they are speaking.” Michael Herman, who runs ChristianityToday.com’s Music channel, shares this view: “The world uses this language, and the movies we watch at the theaters are made by people in this world, portraying people in this world. Profanity will be in the majority of films, to different levels.”
Herman adds that context is crucial: “A ‘Little House on the Prairie’ setting wouldn’t call for that language to present authenticity. But a comedy about life in the city most likely would.” Likewise, Tim Plett says the setting might dictate the tone of the language: “There are times when the cursing simply overwhelms any positive value of a movie. I simply find no entertainment value in a character with a potty mouth. Other times it seems thoroughly ‘in character.’ In the film In the Name of the Father, for instance, the characters were foul-mouthed, but it seemed in keeping with who they were.” (Note: The foul-mouthed characters were primarily incarcerated convicts of all shapes, sizes, and sins, which further accentuated the innocence and cleaner speech of the imprisoned hero.) Tim Frankovich finds foul language in some contexts quite inappropriate … and inaccurate: “What bothers me the most is not the films set in contemporary contexts, but the films set in the past or future that are filled with profanity. Yes, people cursed in the past, but not to [that] extent. When Apollo 13 came out, and the astronauts were interviewed around here (I live around the corner from NASA), they all praised the film for its accuracy, etc., except for one point: ‘We didn’t talk like that. We didn’t use words like that back then.'”
Conclusions on Cursing?
Clearly, as with nudity, the answers don’t come easy. There’s no mistake-it grieves God when someone uses his name in vain, or uses idle words, and it should grieve us as well. But is it Christlike to shut the door and turn away from the sin of the world? We are to take up our cross daily. Feeling Christ’s grief is part of sharing Christ’s glory; the more we become like him, the more the sins of others-and moreso, our own-should sting. The early church was a place to which sinners ran, where they found acceptance, welcome, and encouragement. Like missionaries spreading our arms to a foreign culture, we must learn to understand the language, however difficult or flawed it might be, and then we must serve in humility, aware that there is sin in own language, our own hearts, no matter how many four-letter words we ever say. Close the doors, ignore the culture’s art and expression, and how will we know their feelings, their hurts, their specific needs?
I also find it interesting that bad language, sexual impropriety, and violence onscreen are so unbearable to so many, and yet other sins such as lying, inappropriate anger, pride, and selfishness can be found in the tamest of children’s stories, right down to Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. A Christmas Carol turns loose a Scrooge who demonstrates all kinds of evil right in front of our eyes. Surely his selfishness is exaggerated and hardly tempting (or is it?), but the more we draw near to God, the less tempting all the rest of these should become.
“Dirty words” get used as blunt instruments, with little thought to what they actually mean. They do mean something. There is a time and a place for them to be carefully employed, like guns, for a precise objective. The saints have indeed used harsh language, but if they did so correctly, they were actually “speaking the truth in love.” Otherwise, such bad-mouthing reveals weakness, flaws, dangerous haste (which, in the course of a story, might be revelatory of a character’s personality). Sharp words used out of place are tools of violence.
Which brings us to part three of our series.
Next week, we will raise questions about violence in the movies. The silver screen is showing us more violence all the time, even inventing new varieties. When should we take notice, and when should we shut our eyes? When is the cinema exposing violence, and when is it committing violence?